Reading through an Epic Story
A trek. That’s what it is when you decide to read the entire Bible. After all, it’s sixty-six different books with thirty-some different authors, written over the course of a millennium and a half. And it’s long—almost 1,200 chapters and three-quarters of a million words, meaning that if you decided to read the entire thing aloud, all at once, it would take you just under three days to do it—about seventy hours and forty minutes if you’re an average-speed reader. Moreover, the Bible contains many different kinds of literature. There’s poetry and narrative, lists and genealogies, biographies and law codes and prophecies and sermons and open letters and personal letters and even something called “apocalyptic.” It’s no wonder so many people feel bewildered when they open up the Bible and attempt to read it. Actually, most people do pretty well through Genesis and the first part of Exodus. But once Exodus starts launching into Old Testament Law and doesn’t really come up for air for a book and a half, that’s when many people start thinking, “Wow, life’s gotten busy! Maybe I’ll give this another try next week . . . or month . . . or year.”
I think the key to reading the Bible, though, is to understand that all of those authors and books—all 1,189 chapters of them—are actually working together to tell one overarching, mind-blowing story about God’s action to save human beings from their high-handed rebellion against him, and from the effects and consequences of that rebellion. And the thing is, the story of how he did that is quite literally epic in its scope and its sweep. Wars between angels rage in the spiritual realm, while on earth kingdoms rise and fall, empires clash, cities are built and destroyed, priests perform sacrifices, and prophets point their bony fingers to the future. And in the end, a great throne is toppled and a great crown falls to the ground, only to be given finally to one thirty-year-old man—a subjugated peasant from a conquered nation—whom God enthrones over the entire world as the one who alone can and does offer mercy to rebels. If there’s ever been an epic story told in the history of mankind, this one is it!
Maybe you’ve read epic stories before, stories so sweeping in their enormity, in the comprehensiveness of the world they build, that you feel not so much like you’re reading the story from the outside as that you are actually a part of it. And when it comes to an end, when you get to the last chapter, you hesitate to read it because you know you’re about to have to leave this world you’ve been so immersed in. I felt that way when I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I—a self-assured, cocky college freshman—cried when the book was over, because the world Tolkien had created, the story he wove, had captured my imagination and pulled me entirely into it. Its themes, its rhythms, its poetry and prose, the arc of despair giving way to hope—by the end, I wasn’t just reading that story; I was in it, living it, experiencing it.
Comparing Reading Methods
Imagine, though, if I had read The Lord of the Rings like most people tend to read the Bible. Imagine if I’d taken Rings, opened it to a random place and read the first sentence or two my eyes landed on. Sure, there might have been some beauty in it; I might have been able to “get something out of it” immediately; there might have been some “life application” to be had. But that kind of reading would have been empty, vacant, and lifeless compared to reaching that same paragraph with the full weight of the story behind it. Or imagine if I read The Lord of the Rings with the main questions in my mind being “What does this mean for me? How can this help me be a better person? What lessons can I learn from this?” Again, you might wind up learning some important things reading the book like that, but you’d be fundamentally misunderstanding the story’s aim. You’d be reading it in a fundamentally self-centered and far too self-aware way, when the aim of the story is really to sweep you away in the narrative, to carry you along in a story in which you are not the starring character but in which the idea is to fall in love with other characters. That’s how epic stories are meant to be read—not as tiny little morality tales, but as horizon-busting, eye-bugging, world-broadening, even life-shaping experiences.
That’s how epic stories are meant to be read—not as tiny little morality tales, but as horizon-busting, eye-bugging, world-broadening, even life-shaping experiences.
One more example: imagine reading The Lord of the Rings out of order. You pick it up, flip over to Rivendell for a moment, then hop over to Mordor before slamming back into the Shire; maybe you decide to read half of Tom Bombadil’s song the next day, and then end it up with a little bit of Shelob’s Lair. Now, if you’ve read the story from start to finish once or twice already, that might be lots of fun—reading your favorite parts over again. But it’s no way to understand the story of The Lord of the Rings! And it’s no way to understand the epic story of the Bible either, even though the hop-skip-and-jump method of reading is the one I think most Christians try to employ most of the time. When my daughter was about six years old, I asked what she learned in Sunday school one Sunday, and she replied, “Abraham died for Jesus’s sins on the ark, and then King Josiah raised him from the dead!” If you read the Bible the way most of us tend to—and in the order most of us tend to—you might be thinking that’s actually not a terrible summary of the story!
But of course we know it is terrible, don’t we? That’s not the story, and that’s not how the Bible should be read—not out of order, not as a bunch of little morality tales, certainly not with ourselves and our concerns at the center of our consciousness of it—but rather as the sweepingly epic story of God’s heroic rescue of mankind from our deadly rebellion against him.
This article is adapted from The Epic Story of the Bible: How to Read and Understand God's Word by Greg Gilbert.
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